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Desert Companion

Entertainment: Queen of the Strip

With his new show, longtime female impersonator Toni James hopes to revive the Vegas drag extravaganza

In his decades as a drag performer, Toni James has seen many changes. “The drag audience has changed in that it’s a lot more mainstream now,” James says. “A lot of those people who watch drag on TV have never been to a live drag show.” A veteran of the days when drag was still considered outrageous, his career has covered the spotlit stages of Strip casinos and the bars at local punk dives; he can scandalize a millennial and charm a senior citizen with effortless panache.

“I started my entertainment adventure way back when I was 13 in a drum and bugle corps,” he explains. “After that I became an instructor; after that I became a bodybuilder; after that I became Miss Gay Seattle; and after that I became an entertainer on the Las Vegas Strip. My book is going to be called From Muscles to Makeup.”

This month, James will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his debut in the Sahara’s Boylesque with a Strip show of his own, Drag Queen Cuisine, at the House of Blues.

In the ’90s, James was producing shows for the Seattle Gay Men’s Chorus and other organizations, which led to his unexpected drag debut in a Motown tribute show. “I needed someone to perform Diana Ross, but the queen I wanted wasn’t available,” he says. “My drag mother, Smoky LeFeau, said, ‘I can make you look like Diana Ross.’... When I walked through that curtain as Diana Ross, the place went nuts, and I got hooked.”

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Several years later, visiting Las Vegas, James attended Kenny Kerr’s Boylesque show. “My friend showed Kenny Kerr a picture of me as Diana Ross, and Kenny said, ‘Oh, we need to talk about this.’” James came back a few weeks later to audition. “I signed a contract that night.”

At one point, James performed in a show in Central Park commemorating the 20th anniversary of Stonewall, in which he appeared with another notable drag queen: “RuPaul and I were the only two female impersonators,” he recalls.

The world of drag has changed dramatically since then. Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, a Strip gig was a drag performer’s goal. “Back in the day, really the only two professional shows you could be in were Boylesque and La Cage, and you really, really desired, as a female impersonator, to be in one of those two shows.” With Drag Queen Cuisine, James hopes to bring back not only the Vegas dinner show, but the Vegas drag extravaganza. The performers on the roster promise plenty of spectacle. “There’s Derek Barry, who does Britney Spears — fierce, fierce. Nebraska Thunderfuck, he looks like a Barbie doll. I love his stature.”

To augment his hosting duties, James brings costumes that combine the aesthetics of Bob Mackie and John Waters, such as a gown made from hundreds of beaded bottle tops (“Making that is probably going to take four hours a day until the show”), and another with fishbowls where breast pads would be.

But it’s taken much more than glamorous outfits to sustain Toni James’ lengthy career. “You can be as pretty as you want to in drag, but you need to be able to sell yourself in a potato sack,” he says. “If you can do that, then you can sell it in glitter.”

Drag Queen Cuisine, July 27, August 3 and 10, 5p and 7:30p, $35, houseofblues.com

 

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